Posts Tagged ‘David McCullough’

imagePrepare Your Eulogy

If you’ve not paged through The Road to Character, by David Brooks, it’s definitely worth your while.  By now there have been plenty of reviews, and perhaps you’ve read one.  But as an inveterate Brooks fan, let me add to the chorus of appreciation for his latest book.

In it Brooks laments the change in personal ambition that’s taken place over the last fifty years,  For too long now, he notes, increasing numbers of people have spent the bulk of their lives compiling resumés.  To their regret, as they sometimes discover in their twilight years, they should have spent more time on the qualities better-suited for a eulogy.

The root cause of this change in direction is an infatuation with what Brooks calls “The Big Me.”  If, once upon a time, people espoused ideals that tilted toward altruism, that’s simply not the case any longer.  Today “it’s all about me,” and we value others primarily for what they can do for me.

imageHe devotes the bulk of his book to sketches of several gifted individuals who each faced a crisis of character.  Because he’s assembled such a diverse pool of personalities, you wonder what all of these people could possibly have in common.  But the thread that runs through all of them was the dawning awareness that life and civilization and the universe itself was not all about them after all.  In fact, life only began to have meaning when they made room for others in their own lives.  To borrow from the gospels, which Brooks does on more than one occasion, they discovered the nugget of wisdom that Jesus pointed out about those who lose their lives for the sake of others.  Only when they they lose their lives do they begin to regain them.  Only then do they acquire a real sense of purpose.  Only then does life begin to have some semblance of meaning.

If I may be so bold, this is a variation of a theme that I have  hammered away at in retreat conferences for a few years now.  I’ll grant that the point is not unique to me, but my self-interested approach may be a bit on the singular side.  It’s this.  For years I’ve pleaded with people to keep me in mind when they consider end-of-life plans.  “Don’t make me have to tell a pack of lies at your funeral.  For heaven’s sake, and for mine too, give me something to work with.  Think ahead, and give me and your friends some material we can use in your eulogy.”

imageIt strikes me that this is a useful complement to the advice Brooks has to give.  It’s also a chance to leverage self-interest and put it at the service of others.  This is one case in which being considerate of others means doing a big favor for yourself as well.

As a case in point, I cite the eulogy that the abbot has to give on the death of each of our monks.  He usually begins with material that Brooks labels resumé, and he lists the assignments and jobs of the deceased.  What we monks all realize is that these responsibilities were held by monks who went before the deceased, and now that he’s gone we’ll have to find someone else to do them.  So these initial comments of the abbot say little or nothing about the monk whom we remember that day.  It’s not that these things don’t matter;  its just that a resumé does not describe a real human being.

The abbot then shifts to speak about the qualities that this particular monk embodied in his life.  He tries to describe the character and the soul of our confrere, and this is what occasions wistful memories and an occasional chuckle.  This is the description of a real live human being.  This is the monk who loved and prayed and worked and walked alongside us.  This is the man who did some things well and others less well as he joined us in the search for God.

And all the while, as the abbot goes through this exercise, each of us knows that someday our turn will come.  As for me, I’ve begun to wonder whether I’ve given the abbot enough material for a decent eulogy.  Or will it only be data for a resumé?

imageWhen Brooks points to The Big Me as the root of the problem, it occurs to me that this business has been around for a long time.  Perhaps the first instance of it was the offer that the snake made to Adam and Eve.  Since then a myriad of thoughtful people have reflected on this, including Saint Benedict.   His teaching on the need for humility suggests that The Big Me was alive and well in the sixth century.  More recently I’ve been struck by a phrase from the daily prayer of the Order of Malta.  We pray that we be “forgetful of ourselves,” so that we mgiht be clear-eyed to see the needs of the sick and the poor.

The battle with The Big Me rages on within most of us, and as a culture we seem to be losing ground each day.  Given that, it’s helpful to keep one thing in mind.  It wasn’t all that many centuries ago when most people believed that the universe revolved around the sun.  Today we mock them for living in their heliocentric world.  But are we really any smarter for living in an egocentric world?  Only time will tell, and so will our eulogists.  And if we see them heading for the confessional after our funeral, we’ll know we didn’t give them enough to work with.


+On July 22nd I presided at the Abbey Mass, and you can access the sermon, Sheep with a Shepherd, through this link.

+In addition to reading The Pursuit of Character, by David Brooks, I also recently completed David McCullough’s latest book, The Wright Brothers (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2015.)  I enjoy all of McCullough’s work, and I would only fault this book for being too short.  In the Abbey we are reading in the refectory the new encyclical by Pope Francis.

+The summer continues to be lovely at Saint John’s, and in today’s post I have included photos of the gardens inside the courtyard of the Quadrangle.

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Queen Victoria Agave

Queen Victoria Agave

On Crossing the Great Bridge

In all the years that I’ve visited New York, I’ve completely overlooked what is likely its greatest landmark: the Brooklyn Bridge.  Like so many others, I’ve always assumed that the most interesting sites in New York are in mid-town.  So I’ve never felt the need to venture south of the Empire State Building, save for a tour of the Stock Exchange once.  But it all changed last week.

I was in New York to officiate at a wedding.  I had come a day early, in anticipation of crises and melt-downs; but none seemed in the offing.  So, with time on my hands and a willingness to explore, I decided to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.  And I’m glad I did.

I had avoided the Bridge because I thought it would take forever to cross.  But I now know that a leisurely stroll can get you to the other side in twenty-five minutes or less.  Then, like a true Manhattan snob,  I had always assumed that there was nothing to see on the other side.  I  now know that is not the case.  But all that is grist for a repeat crossing.

2.LadyslipperIt was a very warm day, and maybe it seasoned the entire experience.  It also brought out the tourists in droves.  On the Bridge I heard German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese and a host of other languages.  In fact, visitors seemed to outnumber the natives, most of whom were probably at work.  Altogether, there were strollers and runners and gawkers and bikers; and there were baby carriages and wheel chairs.  In short, it was a real hodge-podge of people, representing New York and the ends of the earth.

I quickly realized that despite all the tourists, this really is a working bridge.  For one thing, the bikers mean business.  Some pedal by furiously, and it’s amazing that no one ever gets hurt.  I was also surprised by the relative quiet.  Tons of cars roar over the bridge, a few feet away from the pedestrians.  But there is little or no honking, because they all share one common purpose:  to get to the other side as quickly as possible.  No motorists pause for the view, and there’s no need to make everyone’s life worse by honking.

3.Ladyslipper.PondMany things surprised me, but I very quickly noticed the absence of the long arm of the law.  On the way over and back I didn’t see a single police officer.  That’s unusual for New York.  Maybe it was just too hot to be out that day.  Or, better still, maybe it is too much trouble to climb up that bridge just to keep order.  On the other hand, I’m sure they do care, as the signs everywhere warned that cameras were catching our every move.  I never heard “the voice”, but I can just imagine a disembodied spirit yelling out:  “Hey you!  Yes you!  Stop that right now!”  And then the voice would return to its reading or coffee or sandwich in a comfortable control room in The Bronx.   Or Bangalore.

With no law and order, people obey the lane markers when and if they feel like it.  A big white line divides the bycycles from the pedestrians, and only people with a death-wish wander over into the bike lanes.  All else is up for grabs.  Despite clear directional markings painted every few feet, no one seems to pay the least attention.  Either they can’t read the sign language, or they are taking advantage of the absence of law and order.  Either way, it is paradise for rugged individualists.  And it irritates the heck out of people like me, who like tidy neat lines of people.

4.Great HallThe Bridge invites the use of your imagination.  On the one hand, both shores teem with activity and vitality.  The huge buildings that now block the horizons have dwarfed the Bridge for decades, but once upon a time the Bridge was the biggest thing in town.  And if you squint and try to imagine an era when those buildings only had four or five floors, you can understand what a massive monument the Bridge must have been in its first years.  No wonder it siezed the public imagination.

What did I learn during the walk?  I learned that there are still plenty of dim-witted people who are willing to stand in the biking lane while someone takes their picture.  I learned that there are very trusting souls up on that bridge, especially the three people I saw in wheel chairs.  One can only hope that the friends who had pushed them across one way were still friends when it came time to push them back.

I also learned that there is entertainment to be had all along the Bridge.  For one, there was the aspiring drama queen who screamed at her mother that she was now ten years old and was starving to death.  She wanted off the Bridge, now.  That led to a heated exchange, witnessed by many of us who thought this was far better than any street theater we had seen.  I for one thought the mother had the chance to confer a measure of immortality on her ungrateful daughter.  After all, lots of people have died on that Bridge, but none has ever died of starvation.  This would be a first.  Meanwhile, I was almost positive that the mom eyed greedily the hearse that was just then passing by not a few feet away.  Was that a sign from God?   But she resisted.  What a saint.

National Catholic Youth Choir camp

National Catholic Youth Choir camp

I also realize that the American bias toward casual dress has maybe gone too far, at least in the case of the Brooklyn Bridge.  I did see three guys in suit and tie, which seemed a little odd in the late-June heat.  On the other hand, there were an awful lot of people on that Bridge who definitely should have considered wearing more clothing.  I don’t say this out of prudery, but rather for aesthetic reasons.  Americans are just not designed to dress that way any more.  But I’m not going to climb up on that bridge and start a crusade about it — no matter how badly it hurts the eyes.

6.FlowerbedLike anywhere, if you stay alert you can catch the little incongruities that make life interesting.  As you approach Brooklyn, for example, a massive building greets you, front and center.  Someone had emblazoned “Read Watchtower” and “Jehovah’s Witness” on its walls, and you couldn’t miss it.  I had expected to find lots of religion in Brooklyn, but not that one.  I was also struck by the t-shirt headed toward Manhattan.  “Follow me.  Walk to the Quiet.”  I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she was going the wrong way.  Besides that, no one was following her, and she needed the exercise anyway.

All in all, I should never have waited so long to cross the Brooklyn Bridge.  It’s free, at a time when prices for everything else in New York are sky high.  It’s also good for you, unless you get hit by a bicycle.  And it’s just flat-out beautiful up there, standing with the rest of humanity, caught between heaven and earth.

But I’m also glad I waited this long to cross the Bridge.  Weeks ago I began reading David McCullough’s “The Great Bridge”, and for whatever reason I got bogged down in the later chapters.  Now that I know how it ends, maybe I can put the book aside.  And without spoiling the ending too much for you, I now know that they finally did finish the Brooklyn Bridge, and it still works pretty good.

7.Cody GroenerNotes:

+On June 24th Brother George Primus passed away.  For much of his life in the monastery he worked in the tailor shop, but also volunteered in the orchard.

+On June 29th I officiated at the wedding of Emily Krump and Thomas Hart at the Church of Saint Francis Xavier in New York.  Emily is an ’08 alumna of the College of Saint Benedict, while her father Paul is a graduate of Saint John’s University and her mother Anne an alumna of Saint Ben’s.  I have been friends with the family for ages, and it was an honor to be part of this moment.

+Last week monks, faculty and staff trooped to the University greenhouse to see a Queen Victoria Agave in flower.  It was a big deal because they bloom only once and then die.  Since this plant was fifty years old, we thought we owed the plant this visit.  Botony student Cody Groen provided expert instruction for all who made the trip.

8.Stickhouse+”Stick House” still greets drivers entering onto the property of Saint John’s.  Recently one photographer caught a dazzing display of the aurora borealis, with Stick House in the foreground.  Much to our surprise, NBC aired the footage nationally.  Click here to view the short video.

+Only a few weeks ago I went to Lourdes with members of the Order of Malta.  Then it was high and dry, though still very green.  A few days ago flood waters overwhelmed Lourdes, for the second time in a year.  Click here for a sampling of pictures of the devastation.

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Cloisters Museum, New York

Cloisters Museum, New York

The Good Shepherd

There’s something wonderfully appealing about the Good Shepherd.  Of course that figure has its roots in the Old Testament and the Psalms, and there they speak of the lord as a shepherd who leads the flock to green pastures and still waters.  But on a more visceral level it all harks back to simpler and gentler times.  It speaks of the security that comes from a good shepherd who protects the sheep from any and all dangers.

When Jesus spoke of himself as the good shepherd he summoned up all those bucolic images, and so powerful was that image that it became the model for ministry in the Church.  Early portraits of Jesus show him as a young man, with a lamb stretched across his shoulders; and out of that evolved the image of the bishop carrying the standard equipment of any and all shepherds — the staff.  Those later shepherds too would lay down their lives for their sheep, and through the centuries many have done so.  In the meantime, the staff served to remind those who held it that their position in the community was to embody a different kind of authority.  They were not to lord it over others, as the gentiles did.  Rather, they were to guide and to serve.  They were to follow in the steps of Jesus and themselves be good shepherds.

Saint Benedict, Monte Cassino

Saint Benedict, Monte Cassino

Through the centuries the analogy of the good shepherd has held up pretty well, especially when shepherds have taken their pastoral duties seriously.  Still, it’s fair to say that there are a few inherent weaknesses to be found in this image, when carried to the extreme.  For one thing, in a real-life pasture I don’t imagine that the sheep love their shepherd all that much.  But he certainly is a better alternative than the wolf.  And as for sheep-dogs, I suspect there is no love lost between them and the sheep.  After all, to the sheep those dogs look suspiciously like wolves.  That may explain why the sheep give those dogs such a wide berth.  They are not there to please the dogs, after all.

It would be a delicious temptation to get sidetracked into the misuse of power throughout the history of the Church.  After all, staffs long ago evolved into gem-encrusted croziers, and in the hands of some bishops and abbots and abbesses they became pretty intimidating weapons.  Rather, it might be better to consider the symbiotic relationship that should exist between shepherd and sheep.  If the shepherd is negligent, the sheep suffer, just like in a real pasture.  And if the sheep wander off and scatter, as can happen in any congregation, then the shepherd has proven he really isn’t much of a shepherd.  Apart from each other, neither shepherd nor sheep are going to be all that successful.  Together, they build a relationship in which everyone is nourished and flourishes.

Saint Benedict, Subiaco

Saint Benedict, Subiaco

I’m also aware of the need for maturity among both shepherds and sheep.  For the moment I’ll leave the shepherds to themselves and focus instead on the sheep.  If sheep start to believe that it’s only the shepherd that matters in the relationship, then they forget what the whole enterprise is about.  The shepherd has not come to make them dumb and docile. He has come to lead them to green pastures where they will flourish and grow.  It is their responsibility to eat, to grow fleece, and to produce lambs and cheese and chops.  In doing so they serve to build up the flock, as well as the shepherd.

In his Rule Saint Benedict writes that the abbot is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastic community.  For that reason he carries a staff, which he uses symbolically in service to the welfare of the monks.  Ironically, he exists for the monks, and not the other way around.  But it is the monks who have the task of responding to his leadership.  They are to flourish in the community that they themselves create, along with the abbot.  And if  they don’t create the community, no one will do it for them.

Saint Benedict, Saint Paul's Outside the Walls

Saint Benedict, Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls

Pope Francis has created not a few stirrings in the Church already, but I was heartened by his decision to carry the staff that Pope Paul VI once carried.  At the top of it is the figure of the crucified Christ.  Whatever else this may say to people, it suggests to me that his ministry is about preaching Christ crucified.  It’s also a reminder that he is called to be a good shepherd.

I hope that I and the rest of us can respond to this symbolic language in kind.  Our lives are about Christ crucified; and we need to act in the belief that Jesus really is the good shepherd who lays down his life for us, his sheep.  As sheep, however, our job is not to be dumb or docile.  Too much is expected of me and you.  Jesus leads us to green pastures.  And in the pastures of our homes and churches he calls us to flourish and to create his Church.  No pastor, and no one else, can do that for us.

Saint Lambert of Liege, Cloisters Museum, New York

Saint Lambert of Liege, Cloisters Museum, New York


+On April 16th I was in San Francisco, CA, where I attended several meetings with the president of Saint John’s University, Michael Hemesath.

+On April 18th I visited Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, with Saint John’s University alumnus Glen Hentges.  Glen serves as the chair of the board of directors of the school.

+On April 19th it snowed almost another foot at Saint John’s.  No pictures, please.

+On April 19th I attended Saint John’s Day, an annual event that gathers benefactors of the University.  This year the Abbey and University bestowed on Fr. Richard Frechette, CP, the Pax Christi Award.  It honored his many years of service in Haiti.

Saint Lawrence presents the Poor. Cloisters Museum, New York

Saint Lawrence presents the Poor. Cloisters Museum, New York

+For my personal reading I am nearly finished with David McCullough’s The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge.  In his tradition, it is a very long book.  But like  his other tomes, it is wonderfully engaging — even if you are not an engineer.

+On Sunday April 28th at 3 pm, my confrere Fr. Bob Koopmann will perform a recital entitled Music: A Pathway to God.  He will play at Saint Vincent Ferrer Church in New York (located at 869 Lexington Avenue — at 66th Street.)  He will present works by Rachmaninoff, Franck, and Brahms, in addition to his own sacred improvisations.  I encourage readers of this blog to attend — if you happen to be in the neighborhood!

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